Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Husband-and-wife duo Greg and Gabrielle Quiñonez Denton share a longtime love of grilled food: the couple met at famed Napa Valley restaurant Terra, where Greg trained Gabi on the restaurant's grill station. "We fell in love over some grilled food," he says. In April 2012, the couple combined their wood-fired passion with South American influences to open their restaurant Ox, and the Dentons' take on "Argentine inspired Portland food" has been drawing near-universal raves ever since (including a 2012 Eater Award for Restaurant of the Year). Ox officially celebrated its one-year anniversary earlier this week, and to mark the occasion, Eater chatted with Greg and Gabi about sweating out 20 pounds by the grill, making Ox a smoke-free workplace, and exactly what's in Ox's umami-making "black gold."
Tell me a little about the research that went into finding the right grill. How long did that process take?
Gabi: I would say over a year.
Greg: We had worked with the French-style grill at Terra, which we loved, but it was really heavy. You pull this really heavy cast-iron grate out, pull the coals forward, stoke the fire that way. We really enjoyed that, but we thought, "We need something that's going to look better."
Gabi: We looked at some of the Spanish versions, and then we were looking at different South American versions: both the Uruguayan as well as the Argentinian. The Argentinian one made the most sense for us. We really like the ability to raise and lower the grill to adjust temperature and cooking rates, and then we found this company out of Ann Arbor, Michigan called Grillworks, that was doing very much the same technology and design of an Argentinian one, but with really great American product.
Greg: The gentleman who we started talking to, Ben Eisendrath, he really worked with us on the type that we have, called the Dual 48, which is the first of its kind. Just talking about where we were fitting it, the dimensions, it all just fell into place.
So these are all conversations that you're having without playing with a physical grill. Was there any apprehension about not having a grill to test?
Gabi: We had fantasies of going certain places — traveling to New York to maybe see if we could get into the kitchen of a gentleman who has one there, Seamus Mullen of Tertulia. There's another great grill that Vitaly Paley [now] has at Imperial, that we were considering; there was another version of it in San Francisco at the time. But we had no money to do any sort of travel or hands-on research. So there was a lot of finger-crossing.
Greg: We've adjusted it [since]. It just didn't come in and was perfect; we've adjusted the closeness of the fire cage to the grill, how high and low it raises?
Gabi: We've pushed the grill back because it was so hot. It was too hot for people to sit here. We adjusted the hood system; we adjusted the air conditioning in this area so it wouldn't be off-putting sitting for people sitting at the grill. It's taken a lot of finesse.
Greg: Because of that, we've gotten a lot of calls from all over the country, from people who are really interested in buying a grill. And I've tried to be very open with them — I can give you as many suggestions as I can, but you're just not going to understand how hot and difficult this thing is to work with until you actually work it. But the benefit is that if you figure out how to make it work for you, the rewards are incredible. And the best part about this grill is that it has these V-grooves and it's also at a slight angle. So all these juices and fat come off these meats that we're grilling, and we catch them in these pans that are in front. And these pans are lined in garlic, lemon, and herbs, and we just re-baste all the meats with that. And we call it "black gold," because it's really the umami of the restaurant. We make mayonnaise with it — on a burger, it's incredible. We've actually thought about jarring it and giving it away as Christmas presents, because it's really the taste of our grill.
As far as discovering the little details like that, the finessing — how long did that take you?
Gabi: I think the biggest thing and hurdle we had to jump, and had to be handled immediately in the first couple weeks, [was] when we realized that because the grill was out a little bit further than it is now, there was smoke billowing into the dining room. And it definitely took a couple weeks to fix that. That was huge, because it was making guests uncomfortable.
Greg: It really points out that a restaurant is almost like a living thing. It needs to balance itself out. We did have people come in here, they adjusted the air, measured the air — but it's like, "When do we have the doors open? When do we have them closed?" The AC's working, the hood's pulling this? it took a solid month to start to feel comfortable with it. But every day's a new challenge. In the middle of service, a cord will break — and it's like 800 degrees where you have to attach the cord. And you're wrapping yourself in towels, trying not to look silly in front of people. "I'm cool. I'm good? that's supposed to do that."
Gabi: I remember that first week, before we had made any adjustments to it, walking into this place on maybe our third night of business, walking in in the morning and it reeking so heavily of smoke. And I just had kind of a mini internal breakdown, where I was like, "Oh my goodness. I'm over this, the intensity of the smoke smell, yet we've just built our lives around it, and it's not going away! It can't go away! No! What did we do!" [Laughs] And as soon as we made those adjustments structurally, now I don't even smell it.
Greg: We have to give a lot of credit to our contractor, Don Trotter, and also to Kurt Huffman, who was here [with] his team just kind of problem-solving...
Gabi: So we could focus on production and prep and dish development. And they were taking care of the stuff beyond our realm.
Since initial build-out, you've mentioned there have been some changes to the room.
Greg: You have to be patient, to fix these one thing at a time. What things need to be fixed immediately, and what things can we hold off? Like, it was too hot in here in the summertime, so we put this monster AC unit here. It was too cold next to the door in the wintertime — and people would mention it to us — so we hung a curtain here. We extended our patio, and some felt like maybe it was second-class seating, it was like leftover seating. And we didn't want that — we love the space and we didn't want it to feel like that — so we put two holes in the brick so that you could be part of the dining room. It feels like one dining room, just different levels.
Gabi: Even before that, trying to respond to people's complaints and concerns, it started initially with opening the Whey Bar next door. With people complaining about the wait — which we completely understand, it's daunting. So just trying to offer a comfortable place for people to sit and wait and enjoy themselves, get comfortable and relax for a little while. Opening up [the patio space], too, was a response to wait time as well. It was like, "Okay, we've got this little alleyway patio that we can maybe use a couple months out of the year, or we can try to frame it in and make it useable year-round." So it increases our seating capacity just a little bit, but hopefully cut the time down a little bit.
Greg: And then, the floor supports. This place shook like the Crystal Balloom? forks and knives would shake off the table. It was uncomfortable.
It sounds like an organic problem-solving process, but looking back, is there one specific thing you'd do differently?
Gabi: I think the one thing I would say — and I'm not even sure it would be possible to fit into the space — is to have gotten an even bigger grill. We don't have enough space to accommodate the food at the rate it's going out of the kitchen. Grill size, having a little more room around the grill?
Greg: Our original plan was that underneath the grill, we would have earthware pots, [to make stuff like] duck confit in it, but when you're doing 40 to 50 items on a grill at one time, you don't have any room underneath there at all. And of course, you have resting pans, sauces, and once that's filled, there's no room. So expanding this, moving the bar forward a little bit, giving us more breathing room — that would be the number one change. And just a bigger grill.
Tell me about opening night.
Greg: Oh, god, it was really rough.
Gabi: We were working on zero sleep at that time.
Greg: Pretty much. [We did a] Portland Food Adventures event, and then we rolled into five nights of tastings, and then we rolled into regular service. Working as a chef for years, you work a lot of hours — but it's just a different level of commitment. Where you can't get to something until three in the morning, and then you have to get up early because you know you're going to have too much to do the next day, and you do that for a solid month. I describe it to people like, I can imagine being in war, not being able to sleep. It's like, bursts of happiness and bursts of sadness. And energy! Out of nowhere! And then you're dead tired, and then you can't sleep. It's really wacky. And of course, working on the grill, which is extremely hot — the first month, I lost 20 pounds. I gained it back. But it was daunting. Really really daunting. And then you have the nervousness of, What's the business going to be like? Will anybody come? Will the grill work, how many problems are going to happen?
Gabi: I do have to say when the night came, all those fears aside, once we got through it, my biggest relief was that it went smoother than I anticipated. Because the week before, when we did the tasting menus, we over-prepared for the business levels: the way we structured those menus was every person had a choice of five courses. And nobody orders that much food. People share dishes. So it's never like that [normally] where you're doing four courses for each person.
Any major surprises that first week?
Gabi: The main thing would just be the level of heat. Because we had worked wood-burning grills previously, we thought we were ready for it and we were used to sweating our asses off. But the fact that it wasn't so enclosed, plus it was set out further, it really was just horribly horribly hot.
Greg: I think we were really surprised at the level of business, too. We figured we would kind of roll into it slow, with hard work, word-of-mouth, consistent quality food, that eventually it would come.
Yes, speaking of, the reviews have been almost universally positive. Do you notice a change or shift in business with every press mention or review?
Greg: It seems like sometimes people don't completely understand the concept, and that may be because [press] is reaching out to people who aren't as food-savvy as others. Sometimes, something like the Oregonian or Bon Appetit or Rachael Ray, people come...
Gabi: Like, people come in and want a filet mignon with mashed potatoes. And we don't have either of those items on the menu; they've come in with the idea that it's a steakhouse, because most people are leading with the meat when they write about us. I'm sure we've sent away people a little disappointed because they thought they knew what they were getting and it was quite different from their expectations.
Greg: We cut our meat quite large so it has time on the grill to cook and absorb the flavor of the wood-fired grill. If we cut it any smaller, it wouldn't work the same. So the idea is that you share your ribeye with somebody, and you get a couple sides. But what we found, which was surprising: everyone gets their own meat and they get a couple sides to share.
Gabi: They share the sides. Which is the opposite of what we assumed it would be, because we're offering these different sized portions, doing what you're supposed to do according to health standards [Laughs] — where you eat three to five ounces of meat and get into all the items from the garden. We were definitely surprised to find we were selling much more meat than we had anticipated.
Greg: Speaking about the menu? we really wanted to make sure that [we recognize] people that have allergies, to dairy, to gluten, if someone's on a Paleo diet, or if someone is a vegan or vegetarian. We really try to accommodate the menu so you can really choose your own adventure: How do you want to eat tonight? [?]
Gabi: I get most excited when we get tables of vegans or vegetarians. Because they almost have to wade through all the talk of meat and sausage and charcuterie to realize that we put at least as much, if not more, time and effort into our vegetables here.
Do you get a lot of vegans?
Gabi: We'll usually get couples. We've had a couple of large tables, like an eight-top that was all vegetarian. We've had people here, couples on their anniversary, who said, "We were really rolling the dice coming in here because we're both vegan, but we heard it was really great." To me, that makes me really happy, knowing we can send them away surpassing their expectations for what they thought they'd be able to find here.
And finally, does it feel like it's been a year?
Greg: It's funny. It feels like it's been 30 years, and it also feels like it's been two months. It's really just — time warps to the future and back. It's just crazy.
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